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Looking to Mutti

Posted by hkarner - 9. Juli 2016

Date: 07-07-2016
Source: The Economist: Charlemagne

Merkel BWWith Britain stumbling towards the exit, it falls to Angela Merkel to give the European Union new shape

AS IN crises past, Europe this week turned its gaze towards Angela Merkel, looking for clues to how the German chancellor plans to keep the continent from cracking up. Amid all the uncertainty that has followed the Brexit referendum, one thing seems clear: with Britain leaving the European Union, or dithering over how to do so, Germany’s already awkward weight in the remaining club of 27 will grow even heavier. Henry Kissinger’s (probably apocryphal) question about whom to call when you want to call Europe no longer needs asking: obviously, you dial Berlin. That seems reassuring to some, unbearable to many. France, Italy and Spain henceforth “take their lead directly from Chancellor Angela Merkel”, sneers Marine Le Pen, France’s Eurosceptic-in-chief, “without running through Brussels.”

For all the sudden interest in her views, Mrs Merkel is in no hurry to supply them. Her slow, measured style is one reason she was able to accumulate such power in the first place. The Germans have even coined a verb in her honour: “to merkel” means to delay decisions while time diminishes problems to a manageable size, and opponents make valuable mistakes. Since the referendum on June 23rd she has thus been simultaneously tough on Britain (“no cherry-picking” during negotiations, she promised the Bundestag) and lenient (seeing “no reason to be especially nasty”). If it were up to her, she would say no more for now.

Domestic politics, however, will force her to break her silence sooner than she would like. Germany’s next federal election is not until September 2017. But the junior partners in Mrs Merkel’s grand coalition, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), have taken the Brexit vote as a cue to begin their anti-Merkel campaign early, using the European question to differentiate themselves.

Now that the pesky Brits can no longer play their habitual obstructionist role, the SPD wants the EU-27 to push hard for deeper European integration and centralisation. In a joint paper Sigmar Gabriel, the SPD’s boss (and Mrs Merkel’s vice-chancellor, as well as her presumptive challenger), and Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament (and another potential SPD candidate against Mrs Merkel), call for “refounding Europe”. The European Commission in Brussels, so loathed by Eurosceptics everywhere, must become “a real European government”, elaborates Mr Schulz. This new and improved EU, they contend, must pour huge investments into roads, power grids and data cables in southern member states to reduce youth unemployment there and boost growth. This is a form of German hegemony that would delight France, Italy and Greece.

But they won’t get it. The Social Democrats are only the junior partners in Germany’s coalition, and Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrats are pulling in the opposite direction. For now it is Wolfgang Schäuble, the finance minister, who is voicing the party’s views. Mr Schäuble, originally a European federalist in favour of ever closer union, has concluded that the referendum signals that Europeans will not stomach yet more centralisation, as he told a German newspaper, Welt am Sonntag. What, he asks pointedly, does “refounding Europe” even mean? Rip up the treaties and start anew? That would take time the EU does not have. And anyway, “Now is not the time for visions.”

The EU, he thinks, must instead pick a few big problems and prove to its disenchanted citizens that it can solve them: controlling refugee flows and securing the bloc’s external borders, say, or tying national energy grids together. And “if the commission fails to act, then we will just take control and solve problems among our governments,” he adds. In the jargon of Eurocrats, this threatened “intergovernmental” approach is the direct opposite of the “supranational” path favoured by federalists. It moves power from the commission, the EU’s central executive body and civil service, to the European Council, made up of the leaders of the separate member states.

As in the euro crisis, such a shift raises the profile of those leaders, and especially of Mrs Merkel. Germany’s policy elite is aware, indeed worried, that perceptions of her dominance could elicit a backlash. If other leaders team up to balance her power, it will stir old German fears of isolation. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister and another leading Social Democrat, calls this a recurrent “simultaneity: an expectation of Germany, but also a fear that Germany becomes too strong within Europe.”

Southerners spend, Germany pays
Yet insiders say that since the referendum, Mrs Merkel has been preoccupied by a greater fear: that the EU is arriving at a form of German hegemony in which Germany is expected to take on the union’s burdens and responsibilities, while everyone else picks and chooses among its benefits. In the euro crisis German money and guarantees have stood behind the common currency. In the refugee crisis Germany maintained its “welcome culture” while others closed their borders. In the coming Brexit negotiations Britain may demand access to the single market without granting freedom of movement to EU residents, while Germany and its welfare system remain open to all.

In a Europe overshadowed by Brexit, Germany is thus feeling the dilemma of hegemony that America has known for seven decades: the temptation to use its power in its own interests conflicts with the duty to use that power to preserve global order. In Europe that means containing the EU’s “centrifugal forces”, as Mrs Merkel said repeatedly in the week after the referendum.

But the order she has in mind seems like the looser Europe once favoured by the British, not that of the federalists. “What is ‘the Union’?” she asked rhetorically at a press conference on June 28th during the European summit. It is the council, the commission and the parliament, she answered, and of those, in German, the first is masculine, the second feminine, the third neuter. Perhaps Germany’s “Mutti” intends to be Europe’s father figure.

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